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Lines of Inquiry: Learning from Rembrandt's Etchings

Winter 2018
Winter 2018
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Jamye Jamison is the owner of Jamison Art Conservation, a paper conservation stu-dio in Cleveland, Ohio. She received an MLIS with a concentration in book and paper conservation from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003. Jamison has been a member of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) since 2000 and a professional associate since 2008. During her conservation career, she has worked at ICA Art Conservation in Cleveland, Zukor Art Conservation in Oakland, Califor-nia, and the Newberry Library in Chicago. Jamison has an AB in art history from Princeton University and began her career as the department assistant for modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1997 to 2000. During World War II, concerns about the possibility of air raids led museums along the Eastern Seaboard to seek out inland institu-tions in which to store some of their most valuable collections. In 1942, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City sent their unparalleled collection of close to 500 etchings by seventeenth-cen-tury artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) to the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, for safe-keeping until the perceived danger had passed.

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Andaleeb Badiee Banta, Curator of European and American Art at the  AMAM, began to look further into this amazing story for a possible  exhibition and found that both the current and previous di-rectors  of the AMAM had also investigated the WWII-era residency of the  Morgan Library and Museum's Rembrandt prints, gathering archival  documents, letters, and other information about their se-cret stay  at Oberlin. Banta was interested in the way these prints are used  in an academic setting to forward both technical and art- historical knowledge of the artist and his materials. As she  pursued her examination of Rembrandt prints in the context of  academic collections, Banta contacted Andrew C. Weislogel, Curator  of Earlier European and American Art at the Herbert F. Johnson  Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  Partnering with professors and students in science, computer  engineering, and art history, Weislogel had simultaneously been  working on a project to create an electronic database of  watermarks found in papers used in Rembrandt's prints. The project  known as Watermark Identifica-tion in Rembrandt's Etchings (WIRE)  builds on a number of exist-ing print sources to expand the  knowledge and search capability of those wishing to use watermarks  to learn more about Rembrandt's materials and methods.  The resulting exhibition "Lines of Inquiry: Learning from Rem- brandt's Etchings," a joint effort between Cornell University's  Her-bert F. Johnson Museum of Art and Oberlin College's Allen Me- morial Art Museum, brought together over 60 prints spanning  Rembrandt's long and prolific career. In the spirit of education,  both the exhibition and accompanying catalogue are heavily  didactic and offer numerous insights into Rembrandt's working  methods and materials. The prints are organized thematically both  in the exhi-bition and the catalogue and each object is  accompanied by a de-scriptive label which is expanded in the  catalogue. The labels and catalogue entries pertain to all aspects  of the prints including state, printing techniques, substrate,  identification of watermarks if pres-ent, and place in the  artist's body of work. In addition, examples of prints on  different types of substrates, such as Japanese paper, vari-ous  European papers, and even an example on vellum, show how the  characteristics of the printing surface affect the visual impact  of the image.  After seeing this exhibition, one cannot help but believe Rem- brandt was unsurpassed by his contemporaries in his understand-ing  of how materials and technique could affect the final outcome of a  single print. A number of works are shown in several differ-ent  printing states for comparison. These groupings offer insight into  the artist's working method and serve as an exploration of how  Rembrandt chose to modify his plates. In the creation of multiple  states, he continued to refine the image while simultaneously  creat-ing various versions of the print as a way to entice  collectors to buy several impressions. He clearly put great  thought into everything from seamlessly melding etching and  drypoint to his choice of pa-per to the careful wiping of the  printing plate. A prime example is the presentation of four different states of  Clement de Jonghe, Printseller, 1651, etching and drypoint. The  curators use these prints to examine how Rembrandt progressed  through the various iterations of this image from the first state  to the third (the second state, not on view), through the fourth,  and finally the fifth. As details in the image shift, it is  possible to see how the artist deftly transitioned from something  akin to an initial sketch to a refined composition with the  sitter's face in shadow, cre-ating a more mysterious gaze and a  striking contrast between light and dark that is missing in the  first state. In addition, the first state was printed on Japanese  paper, rather than the European printing papers on which the other  three states are printed. The Japanese paper changes the mood of  the image with its softer, creamy tone and smoother surface,  lending a warmth that is missing from the brighter European  papers.  The exhibition also offered a vehicle for the curators to delve  fur-ther into findings from data gathered during the WIRE project  and glean more information about individual prints. At the  beginning of the exhibition, visitors can use a large touch screen  to explore how the WIRE project's web interface helps researchers  identify and in-terpret watermarks in Rembrandt's printing papers.  At present, the website is in development and not available for  use outside Cornell, although anyone can submit an image for  inclusion in a growing watermark database. The long-term vision is  for an interface similar to that available in the gallery to be  made accessible for anyone to upload an image of a watermark and  do their own comparison. A simple decision tree helps the user  determine whether their water-mark is a known variant of the over  50 visual types of watermarks currently catalogued in the system  or something never seen before. As more images are added and  watermarks identified, the pool of information will continue to  grow.  As an example of how this information can be utilized, in my ca- pacity as a paper conservator, I was asked to remove a backing off  a small Rembrandt print in the AMAM's collection in preparation  for this exhibition. During the course of treatment, a partial  watermark was identified and found to be the first example of this  particular watermark catalogued in the database. The curators  determined that the object was likely a posthumous print, since  the paper associated with this watermark was not used in the  artist's lifetime. While the watermark was added to the WIRE  database and listed as a newly catalogued watermark, the print was  not included in the exhibition, for obvious reasons.  As more watermarks are added to the WIRE database, future  researchers will be able to make previously unknown connections  between different prints. It may be possible to determine multiple  plates printed onto the same sheet by matching up partial water- marks or to follow the trajectory of multiple states of plates as  the artist moved through various batches of paper. Based on  informa-tion from the database so far, research has shown it is  very likely Rembrandt was printing most of his plates in his own  studio, as it is possible to trace prints pulled from a single  batch of paper over the span of several years. Since his output  would have been much less than that of a commercial printer,  Rembrandt would have had a stack of paper available for a longer  period of time. The possibilities for further research thanks to  the WIRE project are truly endless, and "Lines of Inquiry" serves  as the beginning of a new era of schol-arship and understanding of  one of the most celebrated printmak-ers in history.